International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy



    Status Other
    Country Hawaii


    Keanu (1836-1892) was a Native Hawaiian convicted murderer who became a test subject for leprosy experiments.

    Keanu was convicted of the murder of a Japanese man named Charlie, who had been killed in February 1884. As reported by contemporary newspapers, Keanu was having an affair with Charlie’s wife, Kamaka. Initially, Kamaka claimed that two white men, robbers, had killed her husband. She later changed her story and accused Keanu, turning state’s witness to avoid punishment as an accessory. During his trial, Keanu testified that he had been plowing at Waiapuka at the time of Charlie’s death and was unaware of the murder until he was arrested. The jury returned a guilty verdict, with one juror dissenting. Keanu was sentenced to death by hanging on 2 August 1884.

    A physician from the Molokai leprosarium, George Fitch, had earlier proposed that condemned criminals be offered the chance to become human test subjects in order to escape execution. After Keanu’s conviction, the Hawaii Board of Health petitioned the King’s Privy Council to allow Keanu this option, and the prisoner gave consent in writing to [[Edward Christian Arning]], a bacteriologist who had been studying leprosy in Hawaii for the past year. The petition was granted, and Arning inoculated Keanu with leprosy on September 30, 1884.

    Arning last examined Keanu on 5 June 1886, shortly before he returned to Germany. Keanu began showing signs of leprosy later that year, twenty-five months after the inoculation. His leprosy was confirmed in 1887. He remained in Oahu Jail, but was entered into the register of the Kakaako Branch Hospital. As the disease progressed, he was sent to Kalawao on 6 February 1889. Here, he was reunited with several relatives with leprosy, including his son Iokepa and his nephew David.

    S.B. Swift, resident physician at Kalawao, cast doubt on the success of Arning’s inoculation by reporting that these relatives had had leprosy before the inoculation. This contradicted Arning’s claim that he had made inquiries among members of Keanu’s family and was satisfied that none of them had leprosy. Swift also pointed out that the jailer at the Oahu Jail, Malaihi, had also had leprosy before Keanu’s arrival.

    Keanu died at Kalawao on 16 November 1892.


    International Journal of Leprosy, Centennial Festskrift edition, Vol 41, No 2. 1973.

    Inglis, Kerri A. Ma‘i Lepera: A History of Leprosy in Nineteenth-Century Hawai‘i. University of Hawaii Press, 2013. Web.

    Law, Anwei Skinsnes. Kalaupapa: A Collective Memory. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2012. Web.

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